The Rise of the Trey Ball
In the new age NBA, shooting is everything. Well, not EVERYTHING, but basically everything. The rate at which teams shoot threes has been skyrocketing for about a decade and a half, and it’s in large part due to the analytics revolution that has begun to gain some steam in the league. Teams have realized that in the long run (or even throughout the course of a game), making 46% of two point shots (League average) is not as effective as making even 36% of three point shots (League Average). Threes yield more points in the long run. This realization, combined with more and more elite shooters being drafted and being effective in the league, has resulted in a changed perception of the three point shot. Shooters like Davis Bertans, Joe Harris, and KCP have gotten large contracts, and teams have looked to surround their star players and playmakers with shooters who can knock down the open three when it counts. This allows star players to operate with space - either the defense is going to help when they drive into the paint, in which case every good NBA playmaker will be able to make the simple kick-out to the aforementioned open shooter. Or, the shooter garners so much attention and is so dangerous from three that Lebron, Westbrook, or Lillard are allowed an easy driving lane to the rim. If a team doesn’t have enough shooters, the lane can be clogged without any consequence - we’ve seen this in the past with the 76ers and Ben Simmons, but that’s a story for a different article.
The graph shows the number of 3 point attempts per 36 minutes on the X axis, and 3 point percentage on the Y axis. We would expect the relationship between these two to be positive, or in the same direction, but it is somewhat nuanced - a player who is a better shooter will likely shoot more threes, therefore theoretically increasing their 3pt attempts. But a player who shoots a lot of threes will likely be guarded more tightly than a player who doesn’t, therefore theoretically decreasing their percentage. Exploring the graph allows us to find some pretty interesting outliers.
WOW. Seth is having an absolute breakout season under the leadership of his father-in-law Doc Rivers. He’s shooting just under 60% from three (the highest percentage in the NBA) and he’s shooting about 6 per 36 minutes, which is a fairly significant volume. He has always been a great three point shooter - a vastly underrated one at that - but why the sudden increase in percentage and volume? He’s getting more catch and shoot threes off of Simmons, Embiid, and Harris drives than he has with past teammates. This is because he has generally played more minutes with the second unit on teams, which created a situation where he was the main scoring option and therefore the focus of the opposing team’s defensive scheme while he was out there. This made it very difficult for him to shoot easy, catch and shoot threes, as he was often working on the ball or wasn’t helped off of as aggressively. His insertion into the sixers starting lineup has allowed him to get a lot more open looks with Embiid and Simmons commanding so much attention in the post and on the fast break respectively. He’s been letting it fly with confidence, it’s been going in, and he’s opened up other parts of his game as a result of it. He’s no longer just Steph’s brother - In the modern NBA, he’s extremely valuable and should be viewed as such. Put some respect on his name.
CJ is also having a breakout year thus far. I thought he had kind of hit a plateau in terms of his development these past few years - not saying he isn’t a great player and a STAR, I just didn’t think he was getting better. Then this year, Lillard seems to be playing a little more passively, letting CJ go to work more, and DAMN is he going to work more. He’s getting up almost 12 (!) threes per 36 minutes and shooting 43%. He’s been shooting it with such confidence, taking and making tough shots left and right. He’s an incredible ball handler and can get to whatever spot he wants to get to on the court, and with shooters around him (Lillard, Covington, Melo, Trent, etc…) he’s able to work in space. He’s flat out nasty, to put it plainly. What’s his offensive weakness? I’ll wait. Not many guys in the league have literally no offensive weakness - he can finish at the rim in a multitude of crafty ways with both hands, can score from the mid range off of various types of pull ups to either direction, has virtually unlimited range, and he has the ball on a string to pull it all together. What can’t he do? I’ll wait…
If he can keep it up, not only are him and Dame looking like the best backcourt in basketball, but the Blazers are looking like a dangerous playoff matchup with a potential for a deep run.
I’ve never been a fan of Oubre, but this season has been a real trip. He’s shooting a fair number of threes (about 7 per 36 min) but shooting under 20% from three. He’s clearly taken the Golden State play style to heart - let it fly and if it doesn’t go in, let it fly some more. Kerr doesn’t seem like the type of coach to tell a guy to stop shooting threes. Look at what he’s done (or hasn’t done) with Draymond over the years; Dray continues to shoot threes even though he’s not a good shooter and is far more effective going to the hoop or making plays for others. So, even though it’s not going in for Kelly, I imagine he’ll keep shooting them with high volume to keep up with his teammates (Curry and Wiggins) who also like to get em’ up. Kelly has never been a prolific shooter from three - he’s basically been average - but the types of shots he’s been taking this year have been ridiculous, quite frankly. He takes contested threes off of one drive and in the first 5 seconds of the shot clock even if he hasn’t hit a shot all game. He needs to get back to doing what he does well - using his length and athleticism on defense and slashing to the rim to get easy layups on offense. Be simple and be efficient. Maybe he’s trying so hard to fill Klay’s shoes and that’s why he’s trying to shoot a lot of threes, but he has to be smart and stick to what he does, or else I anticipate the Warriors may go in a different direction.
I move on from Kelly Oubre to the literal antithesis of him; Jeff Teague. Jeff is a vet through and through, and what I like to call a “great shot hunter.” Even though he shoots it very well from three (about 53%), he only shoots about 2 of them per 36 minutes. He only takes wide open threes, and he’s been knocking them down when he does. He’s able to shoot it when defenses play drop coverage on the pick and roll, and he’s gotten a lot more open threes off the catch than he has generally in his career because he’s playing with more stars and playmakers than he has in the past. He’s really taking advantage of probably the most talented team he’s been on in his 12 year career. I’m really a fan of the way Teague operates in the pick and roll. He is extremely patient and methodical in his attack, often getting the defender caught on his back as he uses the pick. I like to call this putting the defender “in jail” - The defender’s only choice is to foul, and it gives the offensive player time to read the defense and react to how they are playing him. It’ll be interesting to see, though, how the return of Kemba Walker impacts his role and playing time, as well as the continued emergence of Payton Pritchard as a reliable option off the bench and someone Celtics fans are really excited about moving forward. Teague has played well and has earned himself a spot in the rotation, but do the Celtics give more time to their younger guards as the season continues?